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Association health plans work for half a million in Washington state

State and federal lawmakers have spent billions of dollars over the last 20 years trying to solve our nation's health care dilemma. The challenge: How to increase access to affordable health care?

Gov. Gregoire recently rolled out a set of recommendations to the Legislature from her blue ribbon health care commission. They are aimed at expanding health care to children and families who are not insured. The Legislature also is looking for ways to insure more people.

As lawmakers deliberate in Olympia, they need to focus on building upon what is working. Fortunately, in our state, a number of things are working well. Among them, association-sponsored health plans. These plans, made possible more than a decade ago, are a vital part of the solution to our health care problems. The governor and Legislature need to enhance their ability to insure more people.

In 1995, after the state's attempt at comprehensive health care reform imploded, lawmakers approved legislation requested by Gov. Mike Lowry that allowed associations to provide health insurance for their members. It was part of an effort to have more small employers provide health care to working families.

It works. Today, small employers cover an estimated half million people across the state under association health plans.

For example, the Association of Washington Business offers an employer health plan called HealthChoice. HealthChoice focuses on tiny businesses who employ an average of five people. These are the small businesses which Gov. Lowry and the Legislature targeted in 1995 because they were the ones who could least afford health insurance.

More than 17,000 people are now insured under the HealthChoice plan. More importantly, more than 40 percent of the small businesses in the plan didn't provide health insurance for their employees until they enrolled in HealthChoice.

Through just this one plan, 2,300 companies and 17,000 employees now have health coverage; 7,000 of those people were previously uninsured. There is a relatively short waiting period and a reasonable cap on premium increases at renewal. For those reasons, the plan is very popular. In fact, over 90 percent of employers that sign up for HealthChoice renew their coverage - another sure sign of success.

One of those employers is Gale Ashby, owner of Ashby Homes in Shelton. Gale has just four employees. Two of the employees on his HealthChoice plan are his young daughter and son-in-law. "No grandkids yet," jokes Ashby, "but we're hoping."

Premiums charged to a small employer by an association plan can be based on the small employer's claims "experience." In the everyday world, experience rating in health insurance promotes healthier lifestyles and rewards employers and employees who cut down on risky behavior like smoking, high fat diets, and excessive drinking.

Association plans are not the only solution to the health care dilemma, but they are an important part of the solution. They are working just as Gov. Lowry and state lawmakers intended. Thousands of employers have been able to provide health insurance benefits for the first time, and hundreds of thousands of employees are benefiting.

In 2007, the Legislature will consider the recommendations of Gov. Gregoire's blue ribbon commission. Lawmakers will be looking for a meaningful solution to rapidly escalating health care costs in both the private and public sectors.

Hopefully, in addition to focusing on the problem areas, they will highlight the successes and try to expand the programs that work - programs like association health care plans.

As legislators consider their options, they might keep two old sayings in mind. The first is, "....if it ain't broke, don't fix it...." The second is, "Nothing succeeds like success."

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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